"A good newspaper, I suppose," Arthur Miller once mused, "is a nation talking to itself." But let's not be paperist about it: you could say the same thing about most media. Journalism and literature and TV shows and movies and Buzzfeed lists are, at their core, conversational. They are, at their core, fodder. They exist, whether new medium or old, hot medium or cool, highbrow medium or low-, for the same general purpose: to give us stuff to talk about.
Let's take just one tiny example from a small town: Millersburg, Kentucky. Which, for a time (that time being the late 19th century), published a paper of local interest called the Semi-weekly Bourbon News (Bourbon being Millersburg's county and the original source of the Kentucky whiskey that bears its name). And the Semi-weekly Bourbon News printed -- along with local news and advertisements and the classic hodgepodge of local interest -- a column it called "Scintillations." Which was a series of delightfully varied bullet-point-style notes about local life and society.
Inspired by this image, which the American Prospect's Jaime Fuller dug up, and helped by the Library of Congress's "Chronicling America" project, I came across a series of Scintillations published during the late months of 1883. And the column, fortunately for us all, delivers what its name promises. There are notices about citizens' health and visitors' presences in town. There are trend updates -- about fashion and language and medical treatments. There are jokes. There are, in all, little factoids about far-away lives that are weird and wonderful and revealing. These include:
• A New Jersey lady waded out and pulled in her husband, who was drowning. As usual, she grabbed him by the hair.
• Senator Beck is said to be worth $250,000.
• The latest slang is "slim." A slim is a dude, a slimette is a dudine.
• Whale's milk is said to be good for rheumatism and neuralgia.
Terrible, terrible jokes:
• Red is the natural color of a young baby, but afterwards it becomes a yeller.
• Square dinner plates are now the latest. Only square meals are to be served on them.
... Aaaaaaaand status updates:
• Sid Kennedy is confined to his bed, in a seriously ill condition, at his father's residence.
• A son of Kossuth, of Sebastapol fame, is a married man in Illinois. He is said to be doing well.
Yep, in other words: "Scintillations" was a Facebook news feed, from 1883. Basically.
And what becomes pretty clear from a read of the Scintillations is why an editor and/or a printer in Millersburg, Kentucky in 1883 took the trouble to gather those items, format them to fit within a column, and lay them out for printing, on a semi-weekly basis. The Scintillations are exactly what they claim to be: really, really good conversation fodder. You can imagine a group of Millersburg residents, gathered around a fire or a dinner table, reading about themselves and their neighbors, marveling at Senator Beck's wealth and discussing the merits of whale milk.
We tend to think of newspapers' work today as the end point of stories: the reporter learns and learns and learns all she can about a given subject, and when she's gathered all she can within the time she has, she writes her take, offering it up as the first rough draft of history. She attempts to take the data swirling around in the world and organize it into the sense-making structure of the story. Which will be the final word on that subject until the next story is written. The "Scintillations" did the opposite, though: instead of attempting to bring order to a chaotic world, they reveled in the world's chaos. They purposely stripped away context. They did, in other words, what Facebook does -- and what Twitter and Instagram and similar social networks do -- today: they reflected the world as it was, messy and funny and leaving you wanting more. Instead of telling stories, they gave their readers ingredients to tell their own.
Here are more Scintillations:
The Semi-weekly Bourbon News, August 3, 1883
The Semi-weekly Bourbon News, August 28, 1883
The Semi-weekly Bourbon News, October 23, 1883
The Semi-weekly Bourbon News, November 13, 1883
The Semi-weekly Bourbon News, November 27, 1883
The Semi-weekly Bourbon News, December 7, 1883